"Get out there, make films, make content and fight for it!" an interview with director Chris Long
Renowned for his work on The Man in the High Castle, The Mentalist and Gilmore Girls, the Emmy nominated director and producer Chris Long talks to Mandy News about his latest TV shows The Americans and Amazing Stories.
Introduce yourself to the Mandy News Audience and tell us how you got into TV and film?
I’m Chris Long, I was executive producer of The Americans, which has just finished, and I am currently producing a show called Amazing Stories for Amblin. I actually started out in sound. I was a recording assistant and tea boy at two music studios in London: RG Jones was one, Red Bus was the other.
When I was working at Red Bus Studios, we did some sessions for the BBC and a guy came in – and the BBC was very unionised in those days – he had to operate the sound console. I was helping him out and he opened my eyes to post-production and broadcast sounds. It felt like a good direction to go in as music was in a transformative situation at that time - this was in the early nineties.
So I started working as a dummy engineer for Molinare, who wanted to expand the amount of music and live OBs that they were doing. They wanted somebody with a music background because they were doing lots of shows like Rock Against Racism in Hyde Park. They were taking lots of the OB (Outside Broadcast) vehicles, recording and bringing them back to be dubbed which is why they wanted someone with a music background. They taught me the drama side of what they were doing.
To cut a long story short, I then moved to LA with my wife, who’s an actress, because she had a film that was coming out here. And from that I got into post-production on a show called Midnight Caller. I met a gentleman who then became my mentor, Bob Singer, who was the executive producer. He took a shine to me and I think it was because I always walked around with the attitude of ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen? That’s a very refreshing and freeing attitude when you come to a place like Hollywood. This is a place where everybody comes and they think it’s going to be so simple, and it’s not, it’s a really hard battle. If you think, ‘oh, I’ll just go home if it doesn’t work out,’ then it’s much freer, you’re not gambling with your life. It really worked for me. I started out with Bob SingerI as a supervising sound editor. I then became a post-producer.
When we did a new show: Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, I became a second unit director, directing inserts and things like that. I stayed with Bob for about ten years then went out on my own, and the rest is history! I’m 57 so I just gave you 40 years! That’s roughly the route. There was a few zigs and zags along the way; relegation a few times, promotion a few times. The weird thing about everybody’s CV in Hollywood, it’s like a family tree. Every job and every show and everything I’ve ever done leads back to people I’ve worked with previously.
You talked about your ethos when you went to America and how refreshing that was to people. How did you go about adapting to the changes? What was your process?
Well, we call it a ham and cheese sandwich and they call it a cheese and ham sandwich. We’re countries divided by a language. Sometimes people would say, ‘oh, you sound really American.’ That’s just the way I was choosing to phrase things. Having lived here for close to thirty years, it’s not anything I decide to do – hey, I’m going to speak American today! I just open my gob and it comes out. It’s a weird thing. If you give me three hours in the pub, which I will be on Saturday, you’d think I’d never left SW6!
Storytelling is storytelling and filmmaking is filmmaking. I just shot in Russia on The Americans. I’ve shot all over the world: Canada, New Zealand, Philippines, England. The process of storytelling and filmmaking is exactly the same: You have a great script, great actors, you hire the best crew and technicians you can, you have a vision to direct the piece and bring it home that way – what could go wrong? Everybody calls it slightly different. In Australia, it’s called one thing, in New Zealand another… Once I got that locked into my head, that was also very freeing.
Also, I never care what platform I’m directing for. I never think, ‘someone’s going to watch that on Imax or on their iPhone.’ I don’t believe you can think that way. I make it selfishly, for myself. I just imagine me and my wife sitting there with my massive great TV screen, or at a screening of it. I just make it for me, which is very freeing. For the first ten things I directed, I felt I was directing for someone else, to please other people.
It’s something that I rabidly encourage amongst people. Obviously there’s someone that we all have to please, but f they’re paying you all this money to direct this piece and produce this piece in my case, they trust you, so just get on with it. Look, for a guy in his mid-fifties, you’ve still got your own set of anxieties to get over.
Yes, of course. Congratulations on the Emmy nomination! When you’re directing an episode of this or being executive producer, what are the choices? How do you decide what role to take? Could you tell us a little bit about the role of executive producer?
Yes, sure. My role is described as producer-director or exec producer-director here in the United States, but it’s not really a role in the UK, I don’t think. We have it set up slightly differently, the way that we run things in the US. We have writers’ rooms and we have a fairly hefty amount of producers that will perform different functions.
We’re geared up on a broadcast network system where we’ll do 22 episodes a year. England is geared up to do 6 episodes a year. There’s a huge difference – with only 6 episodes a year, one person can write them, one person can direct them. It’s a very small amount of shooting time. You’ll commission the scripts first and you’ll get sorted out, one producer, one writer, one vision. That’s not the platform American TV is built on. It’s 22-24 episodes a season. The show I did prior to The Americans, called The Mentalist, we did 24 episodes a season, every season. To make a behemoth beast like that takes a lot of people.
The job of executive producer-director is this: to be the bridge between the writer-producer, the financial producer, the line producer and hold the creative line, because often the writer’s been in a different city to the one where we’re shooting. I choose to be a producer-director because I’m the one creating that style. I’m the one who has more authorship/ownership of the show, because it’s mine! I direct the big episodes, I hire the cinematographers, the production designers… so for me there’s far more creative control – it’s like doing a movie - than just dropping in and out of other people’s episodes.
My new show is called Amazing Stories by Amblin and Apple. It’s Spielberg’s company and Apple, they’re going to launch their drama platform off the back of this. It’s a 10-show set of anthologies, which means individual stories so that’s going to take even more producing as we’re going to be shooting around the world. We don’t know exactly where yet… we’re going to shoot in Atlanta, New Zealand, South Africa, and Pittsburgh to shoot some episodes. That’s going to be a behemoth!
I have a couple of questions about The Americans. You said you worked on The Mentalist, Gilmore Girls, Weeds and all these massive shows. What do you think made The Americans so successful?
We’re always setting out with the same goal: great writing, acting, visuals etc., but it rarely clicks that way, that it all comes together. This is one of those shows that found itself and found its clique, through the creative process of Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg and FX, our network. As we started to get to the end of this thing, towards the payoff, seasons 4, 5 and 6, there’s a lot that became culturally relevant with what’s going on with Russia at the moment.
The show stood the test of time. For the first season or two it was a lot more to do with the cases they were on as Russian agents so it was lot more about what their operations were in the US. Towards the last 3 seasons it’s a family show and that’s what we can all relate to. It’s about a couple and their kids, living in America and just trying to get on with life, washing their socks, and at the same time, having an impact on history.
Fantastic! You mentioned Amazing Stories – what can you tell us about that?
Yes, in the 1980s, Steven Spielberg had a TV series over here called Amazing Stories so he wants to reboot that and make 10 episodes that are anthologies, linked by the theme of back-to-grassroots, old-fashioned Amblin wondrous stories. So, what I mean by that is Amblin and Spielberg wondrous. It’s stories like that. Not like Black Mirror, which is linked by future technology and dystopia. There’s a lot of it out there. The Americans was a bit like that.
We want wondrous human stories – E.T. type stories. A lot of the stories will involve kids. It’s going to be a beautifully souped-up version of what Steven did in the 1980s. That’s about as much as I can say, because we’re still developing the scripts at the moment and developing the stories.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a producer-director?
Well, I would say this: make stories. I mean, here’s the thing… when I was a kid to making films because it was all so expensive – the equipment, developing the film… Only a privileged few got to play in TV and film. Partly to do with the structure in the UK. It was a real old boys’ network. I would say that’s gone, the same way that the recording business has changed. You don’t really need to go to a massive recording studio, unless you’re bringing in a live band to record.
So the key is: get out there, make films, make content and fight for it! If you write scripts, enter them into screenplay competitions, because by winning the competitions, they build a CV for themselves and so do you. You’ll be taken more seriously. If you’ve written three scripts and they’ve all gone to festivals and they’ve done well then someone’s going to read your work.
The other thing I would say is: don’t wait for anybody’s permission. You don’t need it. You just need you and a few mates to do it. Don’t be discouraged because of the hard-skin aspect to filmmaking in Hollywood and in the UK – a lot of people want to do it. Just keep going. One of my favourite expressions is: A professional is an amateur who doesn’t give up.Tags: